Jew­ish Major Lea­guers in Their Own Words: Oral His­to­ries of 23 Players

Peter Ephross with Mar­tin Abramowitz
  • Review
By – June 20, 2012

Mar­tin Abramowitz, cre­ator of the Jew­ish Major Lea­guers base­ball card series that was the impe­tus behind Jew­ish Major Leagu­ers In Their Own Words: Oral His­to­ries of 23 Play­ers, describes the last decade as a a renais­sance of inter­est in Jews in baseball.”

In fact, dur­ing the last twen­ty-five years, dozens of books have been pub­lished about Jew­ish base­ball play­ers, includ­ing the first Jew­ish base­ball play­ers’ oral his­to­ry col­lec­tion, Dave Cohen’s Mat­zoh Balls and Base­balls: Con­ver­sa­tions with Jew­ish For­mer Major League Base­ball Play­ers (Haven­hurst Books, 2010).

Jew­ish Major Lea­guers In Their Own Words man­ages to break new ground, despite its lengthy list of fore­bear­ers, mak­ing it a wor­thy addi­tion to Jew­ish base­ball fans’ bookshelves.

In Their Own Words includes inter­views of pre-World War II through 1950s play­ers Cal Abrams, Andy Cohen, Hank Green­berg, Saul Rogovin, Al Rosen, Goody Rosen, and Al Schacht con­duct­ed by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee in the 1970s and 80s. [Reviewer’s note: The uned­ited inter­views are housed at the New York Pub­lic Library for any­one who wants to dig deeper.]

Ron Blomberg’s inter­view is excerpt­ed from his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, co-writ­ten by vet­er­an sports­writer and for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of the Bergen (New Jer­sey) Jew­ish News, Dan Schloss­berg. Rab­bi Rebec­ca Alpert, author of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Base­ball, inter­viewed for­mer New York Yan­kee Elliott Mad­dox. The book’s oth­er inter­views were con­duct­ed by Ephross and a vari­ety of jour­nal­ists, schol­ars, oth­er inter­est­ed parties.”

Ephross spent more than sev­en years work­ing on In Their Own Words (he inter­viewed Mick­ey Rut­ner in 2005, and began edit­ing the oth­er inter­views in 2007), and his care­ful edit­ing shows. Con­sid­er­ing the diver­sity of source mate­r­i­al and inter­view­ers’ dif­fer­ing styles, each chap­ter capa­bly show­cas­es the play­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties, is emi­nent­ly read­able and offers self-con­tained, cohe­sive narratives.

The col­lec­tion offers count­less lit­tle-known sto­ries that paint a vivid pic­ture of what it was like to be a Jew­ish Major Lea­guer,” Ephross told JBW. Thrown in are some per­son­al details. What were their lives like? How do they feel about being Jewish?”

These fas­ci­nat­ing per­son­al vignettes and side sto­ries to the play­ers’ on-field exploits are what define In Their Own Words.

Take, for exam­ple, the inter­view of jour­ney­man pitch­er Sub­way” Sam Nahem Nahem — the first Syr­i­an Jew­ish lawyer and base­ball play­er” and also one of the first [pitch­ers] to use a slid­er.” Nahem recounts telling the New York Dai­ly News about his ten­u­ous sta­tus with the Brook­lyn Dodgers after a rough spring train­ing out­ing. I am in the egre­gious­ly anony­mous posi­tion,” he said, of pitch­ing bat­ting prac­tice to the bat­ting prac­tice pitchers.” 

One of the book’s oth­er themes is play­ers’ aware­ness that they embod­ied Jew­ish pride” for fans.

There’s some­thing dif­fer­ent about being a Jew­ish ballplay­er than being a reg­u­lar’ (non-Jew­ish) ball play­er,” Ephross said. It’s a lit­tle bit of Jew­ish geog­ra­phy” on the ball field.

There is no dearth of cur­rent Jew­ish play­ers. Jew​ish​Base​ball​News​.com lists ten Jew­ish Major Lea­guers at the time of of this review, includ­ing reign­ing Nation­al League MVP Ryan Braun and All-Star sec­ond base­man Ian Kinsler.

In Their Own Words, how­ev­er, con­tains only three inter­views with Jew­ish Major Lea­guers who played since 1980, and only Adam Green­berg — who was hit in the head dur­ing his first big league at-bat in 2005, end­ing his Major League career — took the field since 2000. This lack of mod­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a curi­ous omis­sion shared by In Their Own Words and Cohen’s Mat­zoh Balls.

Becom­ing more aware of your Judaism and your Jew­ish iden­ti­ty as you get old­er is part of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence,” Ephross explains. The nature of this project is to go beyond the head­lines and the quotes… and to actu­al­ly learn about their lives and their experi­ences. It’s hard to get cur­rent play­ers to talk about that.” 

Jew­ish base­ball fans can only hope there may be a future vol­ume of Jew­ish Major Lea­guers In Their Own Words that reme­dies this over­sight and fur­ther expands on the suc­cess of the orig­i­nal. Appen­dix, index, photos.

Joshua Platt, an avid base­ball fan and col­lec­tor of Jew­ish base­ball autographs,publishes www​.Jew​ish​Sports​Col​lectibles​.com.

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